Category Archives: Museum education

Unwrapping art: the basics

people looking at art

Enjoy art, but not sure how to approach it? Like an artwork but not sure why, or if there’s more to it? Come along to my short introductory course at the Art Gallery of NSW, Unwrapping art: the basics, over 4 Saturdays, 16 May – 6 June 2015.

While art from many different times and places will be presented, my approach will be based more on ideas rather than traditional art history.

For more information and to book tickets, visit the Art Gallery of NSW website.

The dangers of assumption

Many years ago, when I worked for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I ran a travelling art service called “Onsight”*. I took art exhibitions to people for whom a visit to the Gallery would be difficult or impossible, for example, to prisons, hospitals and nursing homes. One day, I visited a nursing home in a northern beaches suburb of Sydney. I set up the exhibition and then spoke with some residents about the artworks. After lunch, a nurse pushed a very old, fragile woman in a wheelchair into the room. Despite the fact that the woman did not look up at the paintings, I approached and began to speak. Almost immediately the nurse said to me, ‘Don’t worry about her, she’s out of it.’ I wondered, then why did she bring the woman in! I said to the nurse, ‘I’d be happy to push her for a while; have a break.’ So she thanked me and left.

I pushed the wheelchair and tried to talk to the old woman about the paintings, but I soon learned that she either didn’t understand anything, or else was not at all interested in art. So I said to her, ‘It looks like art isn’t your ”thing”. So, what does interest you?’ I didn’t expect an answer but after a short pause she said, ‘Oh, hang-gliding, abseiling, bungee-jumping…” I was momentarily silent with amazement, and thought, ‘Is she really joking with me?’ But her humour intrigued me, so I asked some more. I learned that she was the second woman in New South Wales to pilot a plane! So, she probably did those other things, too.

Now I understood: Here was a woman who previously had a very exciting, active life, but now had very little freedom and mobility. I was not at all surprised that she wasn’t interested in the paintings. No matter; I was happy instead to listen to stories about her amazing adventures. After about twenty minutes, when it was almost time for the nurse to return, the woman looked at the paintings, and one in particular. ‘I like that one,’ she said.

Then the nurse came back. It was time for the old woman to go back to her room.

Afterwards, I thought about what had happened. If I had assumed – because the woman originally showed no interest in art – that talking with her was not worthwhile, I would never have learned about her amazing life. And she would not have enjoyed (even if only slightly) one of the paintings. I wonder if the nurse ever discovered that I was actually able to communicate with the “mental incompetent” despite her advice.

* “Onsight”: a playful hybrid of the words “onsite” and “on sight”

What makes art, ‘art’: a family tour

I create a work of ‘art’ by tipping a box of junk upside-down in an art museum.
If I left it there and came back a day later, do you think it’d still be there?
Why not? Who would have taken it away? No, not the director, nor the curators… but the cleaners! The cleaners must decide whether it looks like it’s MEANT to be there.
So, to be seen as ‘art’, my work needs ‘meantness’.

A frame helps an artwork’s ‘meantness’: it contains it, and acts like a fence separating the special (art) from the ordinary (non-art). A label could also help. But an artwork really needs more, like: arrangement, selection and repetition.

One good way to give a work of art ‘meantness’ is symmetry (even if it’s not exact): the stuff on the left balances the stuff on the right.

Sometimes, to make a painting look energetic, it has to be painted in an energetic way, almost like a dance. Here I’m imagining how the painting “New reality” MIGHT have been painted.
But it’s very likely that the artist had to try a number of times, each time on a fresh board, before getting just the right effect. If that’s true of this painting, then how long did it take for the artist to paint it? A minute? A day? A month?

Why museums are worth visiting

On 21 August 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article in its Traveller section: ‘Boring, pricey and crowded: 17 reasons why I hate museums’. (It was based on a slightly longer article from the Telegraph, London.)

This response is in the form of an open letter to its author, Oliver Smith:

Dear Mr Smith,

Thank you for your article, which questions why going to museums is often assumed to be a must-do activity when travelling. However, I would like to respond to some inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

Firstly, although the subtitle is ‘17 reasons why I hate museums’, many of your reasons refer to “you” (i.e. the readers of the article). Wouldn’t it be more consistent, and honest, if your reasons were written in the first person singular?

1. For example, your first reason is stated as: ‘You only go because you’ve been told to’, when what you really mean is, “I only go because I’ve been told to.” How very obedient you are!

You then refer to a tourist guide to Budapest: ‘Forget beautiful parks, trendy bars and historic baths, what tourists really want to do – the author believes – is spend an unforgettable hour inside the city’s thrill-a-minute Ethnographical Museum.’

So, I gather you believe that these three things are what tourists really want to visit. Let’s look at them one by one:
‘Beautiful parks’: sure, no argument there. By the way, are you aware that many museums are set in beautiful parklands?
‘Trendy bars’: Are these really that different in different cities? This sounds about as enlightening as going to McDonald’s in every foreign city you visit.
‘Historic baths’: Historic, eh? A bit like a museum, then?

2. ‘You’d be happier doing something else

Of course what you mean is, “I’d be happier doing something else.” The example you give is an anecdote about how you once decided to sip wine with a friend by the river instead of queuing for the Uffizi Gallery. Hmm, sipping wine next to the Arno River versus queuing for the Uffizi. Hardly a fair comparison, is it?

3. ‘The artefacts are boring

You say you didn’t mind the Old Operating Theatre and Museum in London because you find things such as ‘human organs in pickling jars… endlessly compelling’. But you find ceramics and religious art dull. Referring to the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, you write: ‘Its collection consisted almost entirely of biblical scenes by Renaissance and Baroque artists. Yes, I have a very limited grounding in art history, but to my eye – and to those of many others, I venture – they all looked the same.’

I wonder if you have the same attitude towards other people. Unless they excite and entertain you in the first few minutes, I suspect you just dismiss them. You might be surprised what you’re missing out on.

4. ‘The atmosphere is funereal… tourists shuffling in silence down hospital-like corridors, bored security guards, and jobsworths waiting to pounce on anyone who dares to laugh, send a text message or eat a biscuit…’

This is your first valid point, at least partially. Many museums are too dour, but this is changing.

5. ‘You’ve no idea what you’re looking at

It feels a little churlish to say this, but of course what you mean is, “I have no idea what I’m looking at.” You go on: ‘Museums – even the best funded – assume a worrying degree of knowledge, offering painfully little information about the items on display. How many people will be enlightened by an inscription that reads “clay pot, 1200-1300, Russia”?’

This is an even more valid point. That’s where museum education departments (which come under various names) come in. There is a real skill in creating labels and text panels that are informative without being overwhelming, engaging without being patronising.

6. ‘The interactive displays are useless, and often out of order

Unfortunately this is also too often true. Of course if they are useless, then you shouldn’t be upset when they don’t work.

7. ‘Screaming children

So, children never ‘run, shriek or pick their noses’ elsewhere? Seems like a funereal atmosphere (see point 4) might be more to your liking.

8. ‘Their parents… interpreting displays in loud, patronising “isn’t this fun, Hugo” voices.’

Next time, listen in. Who knows? You might learn something about 13th century Russian clay pots.

9. ‘There’s nothing fun for adults… Why is innovation solely employed for younger visitors? Do they really believe adults are sufficiently entertained by a neatly arranged collection of pewter spoons?’

This also contradicts your fourth point. Also, the best innovative programs for younger visitors have something worthwhile to offer adults, too. Next time you see an “interpretive performer” in action at a museum, have a look at the adults nearby. Some of them are probably there without children. They are there because they find the experience enjoyable and enriching.

10. ‘They’re too crowded… people make a beeline to the only painting they’ve heard of.’

The reason why people flock to famous original works of art is because they find these works have a personal connection to them (albeit one mediated through reproductions and mass media). There are always other works that hardly anyone else is looking at. And there are plenty of museums that are hardly ever crowded.

11. ‘They cost a fortune in public money

You have partially answered your own point when you say, ‘they provide wider economic benefits’. Also, a museum’s purpose goes far beyond providing an air-conditioned place for tourists to visit. It preserves objects (of cultural, historical or scientific significance) and does valuable research.

12. ‘Entry fees are pricey, even then

Your pricey examples are not funded by governments. A temporary exhibition at Tate Modern might have high entry fees, but the permanent collection doesn’t. And £18 / A$32 might be ‘eye-watering’ to you, but if you went to a concert for that amount, you probably wouldn’t complain, would you?

13. ‘Most of the objects are kept out of sight

Why is this a reason not to visit a museum? If anything, it increases the chances that the next time you visit, there’ll be something new to see. And don’t forget museums lend items to other museums.

14. ‘People have started taking selfies there

How disrespectful! Seriously, as per my response to point 10, it’s another way for people to make a personal connection to a museum object, particularly a work of art.

15. ‘It’s all on the internet, anyway… Google Art project means you can view thousands of masterpieces in stunningly high resolution, without selfie-takers.’

Yes, what a wonderful resource! But why does Google Art project have to be a substitute for the real thing? According to your argument, why bother travelling at all? There are so many high-resolution photographs of amazing parts of the world, available online.

16. ‘The gift shops and cafes are a rip-off

Some are better than others, and most sell better souvenirs than you can find in the main tourist precincts. But don’t forget, sales in museum gift shops and cafes go towards the costs of running those museums. In some cases, they enable museums to to have free entry.

17. ‘Sometimes the works are fake (in China, anyway)

Well, according to your fifth point, it wouldn’t make any difference to you, would it?

Jonathan Cooper

A still from the AT&T ad

Does social media have a place in an art museum?

Dana Allen-Greil posted an article recently, “Everything that’s wrong with society”? Facebook Home in museums. The post was triggered by a TV ad from AT&T in the US, for a mobile phone running Facebook Home (an app that fills the home screen with a steady stream of Facebook posts). In the ad, a woman in an art museum is shown being bored and disengaged. But then she checks Facebook on her phone and suddenly she ‘tunes into’ the art. Grell asks,

“Is it a provocative take on how technology might bring museums to life by honoring the personal interests and experiences of visitors? Or a depressing documentary on how nothing—not even the rare beauty of great art—can earn appreciation and attention in a world obsessed with the immediate?”

Many people are offended by this ad and I know why. Yes, it would be a pity if an art museum visitor failed to engage with the art surrounding them because they were distracted by the ‘chatter’ of social media, and this ad seems to be encouraging exactly that. But, on the other hand, art museums often take their audiences for granted, assuming that all they need to do is put their ‘masterpieces’ on display and get people to come and see them.

Shortly after I started working as an art museum educator in 1982, there was a TV ad in Australia for Kit Kat chocolate bars, featuring a famous painting* from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where I worked:

While the ad was current (and for some months afterwards), whenever I took a school group into the room containing that painting, one of the students would suddenly exclaim “The Kit Kat painting!” and the whole group would rush over to see it. At first I was thrown by this, because it upset the flow of my planned talk. But then I discovered that if I went with it, rather than resisting, the students would seem to get much more out of the rest of my talk, and their museum experience generally.

At the time, some of my colleagues expressed their horror that this iconic artwork was being ‘cheapened’ by commercialism. But I maintained that a connection was being made between the world of art (19th century art, in this case) and the students’ world (albeit mediated through mass media), and so it was in fact a positive thing.

I personally have no problem getting visitors (and not just school students) to imagine what a work of art would taste like, what piece of music would go with it, what sport the people in it might play, what it could be used to advertise, or what they could write about it on Facebook. As long as the artwork has a role to play. And, who knows, maybe further down the track some of these people might see this artwork again, feel some connection with it, and decide they want to know more about the artist, the period, the style. But, if not, that’s OK, too.

[* Incidentally, the painting is On the wallaby track, 1896, by Frederick McCubbin.]

Update: Nina Simon has written a blog post about this same ad, on Museum 2.0.